The Olive Press sends Vernon Grant to stylish Murcia where he finds a city bucking recent trends across Spain
DESPITE the dismal April weather across Spain, brides and their mothers have been occupying the wedding dress shops around the country taking much time to choose outfits for their collective “big day.”
Many Spaniards say the best way to judge the style of a Spanish city is by attending a wedding there. If it is a classy affair, they say, the city will also be tasteful and wealthy.
I recently spent a weekend wondering around the centre of Murcia. In the space of 60 minutes, I saw seven weddings – all taking place within a five-minute walk of each other. Seven brides and several brothers!
At a time when Spain is coming to terms with record levels of divorce, it seems that fact is not deterring couples in Murcia.
Sights and Swedish shops
If we take the advice literally, then Murcia is clearly a prosperous and fashionable city. From the wedding at the famous cathedral in the centre down to the more basic nuptials at a local registry office, smart attire for the men and stunning dresses for the ladies were readily on display.
Murcia does not boast a large city centre, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in appearance. It is cleaner than many Spanish cities. It has some striking buildings, all located within walking distance of each other. It also has some of the smartest shops. If you prefer out of town shopping, it should be noted last year Murcia joined the likes of Sevilla and Barcelona in being home to IKEA – a must visit for all new homeowners in Spain.
The city is dominated by Cathedral de Santa Mari, which has been around somewhat longer than the Swedish furniture store. Finished in the 15th century, it is the most impressive monument in the region. Murcia is also known for the Almudi Palace and the Arab castle of Monteagudo.
The museum, Ramon Gaya, is dedicated to the artist of the same name. He was a native of the city. The building, in Catalina Square, also includes the work of other artists such as Vazquez and Rembrandt, who heavily influenced Gaya.
Housing in the centre of the city, is in price at least, akin to those in Granada. However, the apartments look smarter in Murcia and there are fewer of those depressing new builds that are beginning to so spoil the outlying areas of Granada. On Calle General Margallo, a three-bedroom apartment in the heart of the shopping area is being sold privately. It also has a bathroom, kitchen and a lounge with good views of the city. The asking price is 315,000 euros.
Local property agent Gill Hughes of www.direct2.spain.co.uk says: “Some Brits who go to university or work in the city of Murcia may buy a property there, but they are few and far between. It is very much a Spanish place.”
The region of Murcia as a whole is more international. Located in Southern Spain, it covers 11,000 square kilometres of land. It is as varied as it is large. Live in La Manga and you are in Murcia. Go bird watching in Mar Menor and you are in Murcia. Go walking in the countryside of the Sierra de Espuna and you are in the most beautiful part of the region. It is easy to forget you are in an area largely known only for its warm winters. Murcia has a great deal more to offer.
Bill Grimward moved to the coastal town of Aguilas five years ago and loves the region. A keen angler, he can often be found on one of the more than 200 beaches in Murcia. He says: “In some areas I have been to in Spain what you see is what you get. By that I mean the place might just be lots of flat farming land and little else, or mountains will dominate and if, like me, you are not the fittest specimen then you are permanently out of breath.
“What I like about Murcia as an area is its sheer variety. There is something for everyone here. I spend much of my time fishing in the sea near my home. However, if I wanted to walk in forest I could. If I understood the point of playing golf, then I would be in heaven in Murcia.
“I moved here because I wanted to continue fishing despite suffering from arthritis – an ailment which has been much less of a problem since I left Scotland for this part of Spain.”
In Aguilas, www.direct2spain.co.uk is selling a newly-built, two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment on the Collados Bajo development. It has a spacious terrace with sea and mountain views and is for sale for 175,000 euros.
Travelling to Murcia is getting easier year on year as Gill Hughes confirms. She says: “There are plans for a new international airport at Corvera. This has attracted more development close to this small yet friendly town. It has also encouraged more development in the south of region as the new airport and new roads will improve the access.
“Nearby Polaris World Golf Resorts have luxury golf front properties from 118,500 euros. There are also beach front properties at the prestigious La Manga Beach Club for sale from 170,000 euros.”
If being on the beach is not your thing, Murcia boasts many historical towns and cities. It would take many days to complete a ‘whistle stop’ tour of them, but were you to try, the following destinations are each worthy of a visit.
Lorca and its castle can be seen from the nearby motorway. Most people keep on driving and do not take time to wander Lorca’s ancient streets or climb to the top of the castle. From here, you are able to appreciate just how big the region is. Travel north west and you will arrive in beautiful towns such as Moratalla. It towers above some of the nicest countryside in all of Spain.
Fruit, veg and immigrants
Murcia is famous for its vegetable growing and, of course, if the tomatoes and lettuces are to make it into shops across Europe, someone has to pick them.
The work is too low-paid for most Spaniards and therefore immigrants, often from South America, move to Murcia. This ensures places like Lorca, Fuente Alamo and Aguilas are home to many nationalities.
If you travel from inland Murcia towards Mar Menor and the Costa Calida coast, be sure to visit San Pedro del Pinatar and Santiago de la Ribera. They are predominantly Spanish towns. They each have some of the nicest seafood restaurants in the area. However, you may have to share your lunch with the army of cats that live among the boats.
Where the Mar Menor meets the Costa Calida (Warm Coast) you will find Puerto de Mazarrón. This is where both resident expats and local Spanish people head for a spot of sunbathing. Betty Percy takes her visiting grandchild there: “I like the town and beaches there. Isabella is two and enjoys going on the beach. It also helps that my favourite Chinese restaurant is in Mazarron.”
Betty and her husband, Tom, drive there regularly from their inland home near Fuente Alamo. She says: “When we started looking in Spain, Fuente Alamo and the surrounding villages were more Spanish than those on the Costa Blanca. Today, there are some English shops and bars. Then, house prices were lower here than on the Costa Blanca. Now the margin is much narrower.”
There are some peaceful hamlets close to Fuente Alamo. In places such as Las Palas you can be within 30 minutes of the coast and yet still close to the motorway network that will take you to Murcia and Alicante. There is currently much road building taking place in the area. The extension to the present AP-7, which currently stops at Cartagena, will join the city to Vera in Almería; linking coastal resorts such as the Port of Mazarrón and Aguilas.
Cartagena, home to the largest naval base in Spain, is also changing – but for the better. For so long an uncompromising industrial city, the tourist penny has dropped and Cartagena is receiving a facelift. Trendy restaurants are opening along the seafront attracting a new crowd along with homebuyers who cannot afford to buy in the city of Murcia.
My journey around this unique region takes me back to the centre of Murcia just in time to witness a double wedding at the cathedral. There is much kissing, popping of Cava corks and even a live band of costumed minstrels who serenade bride, groom, guests and passing shoppers.
There are many words than may be used to describe the province of Murcia: Warm, naturally. Welcoming, definitely. Varied, certainly. However, there is only one word for the city and that word is classy.